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SĀKHYA , a Sanskrit word meaning "enumeration," "categorization" is derived from the substantive sakhyā ("number") and is the name of one of the earliest Hindu philosophical schools.

The Teachings of the School

As the name implies, the Sākhya school relies on distinct and recognizable patterns of enumeration as methods of inquiry. The different patterns of enumeration can be grouped into three main separate divisions according to their overall function in the system: the principles of twenty-five (constitutive), the dispositions of eight (projective), and the categories of fifty (effective).

Basic to an understanding of the Sākhya school is the importance it places on the distinction between contentless consciousness (purua) and materiality (prakti), two completely different principles. Nothing exists apart from these two principles. This distinction caused the Sākhya school to be labeled "dualistic." Contentless consciousness is the opposite of materiality in that it is inactive, yet conscious, and therefore not subject to change. Materiality, on the contrary, is potentially and actually active, but unconscious. Materiality is both unmanifest and manifest. The unmanifest materiality may also be called the "original materiality" because it is from this that the whole manifest universe emerges.

The universe undergoes cycles of evolution and absorption. During absorption, the original materiality is dormant, and the three constituents of materiality (the gua s: sattva, rajas, and tamas ) are in a state of equilibrium. On disturbing this equilibrium of the three constituents, the original materiality starts to reproduce itself. Unmanifest transforms into manifest materiality and keeps on transforming from one principle to the other until the original materiality has manifested itself in twenty-three principles. This is the constitutive pattern of enumeration, which is an extension of the fundamental duality. According to some accounts, the first principle to emerge is "the large one" (mahat ); other accounts maintain that intellect (buddhi ) emerges first. Either of these two principles produces ego (ahakāra ). Ego, in turn, produces ten faculties: five sense faculties (buddhīndriya ) and five action faculties (karmendriya ); ego also produces the mind (manas ) and the five subtle elements (tanmātra ). These subtle elements produce five gross elements (bhūta ). Figure 1 (fashioned after the Sākhya classic, the Sākhyakārikā of Īśvaraka) gives an overview of the twenty-five principles that constitute the universe: the twenty-three produced principles and the two basic principles, contentless consciousness and original materiality.

All twenty-three principles of manifest materiality are a transformation of one thing, namely, the original materiality. These principles, in fact, are not new products or effects; their effects already exist in their causes. The essence of this theory of causality (satkāryavāda ) is that an effect must be connected to preexisting necessary conditions, otherwise anything could be a cause of anything else; in other words, there must be a dependent relation between cause and effect, such that milk alone, for example, and not water, produces yogurt.

The Sākhya school postulates that materiality is one, and that the evolution of a number of things out of that one materiality is understood as causation. The numerous things in this world are different from the original materiality, and yet they are the same. The things of everyday reality, ourselves, our minds, egos, and intellects are materiality. Mental functions are transformations, too. Contentless consciousness itself gets mixed up, as it were, with these transformations, although in reality contentless consciousness is merely a witness to them. But since contentless consciousness does not undergo any change and does not produce any activity, this confusion must be rooted in materiality. If anything is

to be effected, it has to happen in materiality. It is not clear from Sākhya literature how the two basic entities interact, if indeed they do.

It is here that metaphysics and epistemology merge. The confusion of contentless consciousness with materiality gives ground to epistemology. How does one remove this confusion, this ignorance that keeps the world in the repeating cycle of existence? Bondage in the cycle of lives is contingent upon ignorance of the distinction between materiality and contentless consciousness. The removal of confusion and ignorance is achieved by particular knowledge which differentiates or discriminates contentless consciousness from materiality. By means of this knowledge, one wins liberation. Thereby one ceases transmigrating from life to life.

Intellect, ego, mind, the five sense faculties, the five action faculties, and the five subtle elements together form the subtle body. This subtle body is attachable to, and detachable from, the gross body; by attaching itself to the gross body, it animates it. On the other hand, by detaching itself from the gross body at the time of death, the subtle body transmigrates. This subtle body includes the eight dispositions inherent in the intellect that form the projective pattern of enumeration, shown in figure 2. With respect to liberation, the left-hand column lists four dispositions that are constructive, and the right-hand column lists four dispositions that are destructive. Their composition changes depending on which disposition is predominant.

The effective pattern of enumeration results from the interaction between the eight dispositions of the intellect (the projective pattern) and the twenty-five principles that constitute the universe (the constitutive pattern). This effective pattern lists fifty categories of creations of the intellect: five misconceptions; twenty-eight incapacities of the sense, action, and mental faculties; nine contentments; and eight spiritual attainments.

These categories have still further subdivisions. At the same time, this pattern is interpreted in terms of four created forms of life: plants, animals, gods, and humans.

Patterns of enumeration were designated as a scholarly system that employs methodological devices (tantrayukti ) based on a careful enumeration of subjects, features, and topics of things organized according to the different disciplines of the intellectual tradition in ancient India. These devices developed in various branches of learning, such as medicine and statecraft. According to the Yuktidīpikā, a commentary of the Sākhya school of the latter half of the first millennium ce, the list of methodological devices of the scholarly system begins with mnemonic verses, followed by the instruments of knowledge, the members of inference, the complete set of the sixty topics of the Sākhya system, doubt and proof, brief and detailed explanation, the order of topics as known in the evolution of the universe, and the description of things by name.

As is apparent from this enumeration of methodological devices, there is an emphasis on philosophical devices. These were employed to establish knowledge of things as they are, for the purpose of acquiring knowledge to attain liberation. Knowledge must be acquired by proper devices or methods of knowing, namely, perception, inference, and verbal testimony. The Sākhya school gives special attention to inference since it is through inference that one can know the two principal entities: contentless consciousness and original materiality, both are beyond immediate sensory perception.

Historical Overview

The Sākhya school grew out of naturalistic concerns. In the earliest articulation of Sākhya ideas in the Upaniads (600 bce to the first centuries of the common era), the most prominent ideas were often those characterized by the enumeration of various principles, such as elements of nature.

The Bhadārayaka Upaniad and the Chandogya Upaniad, two of the oldest Upaniads, contain numerous explanations of the world in terms of sets of three constituents (gua s), sometimes in the form of colors (black, white, and red), basic necessities of life (food, water, and heat), or seasons (summer, rains, and harvest), and so on. Obviously these oldest Upaniads represent layers of various thought structures. There seemed to be two elements, opposites, beneath the triple system: black and white, food and water, summer and rains, and so on. By adding a third element, such as the color red, the necessity of heat, or the season of harvest, the tension between the opposites was removed; and thus the triad lent itself to endless combinations. These triplings form the origins of the three constituents of mate-riality.

The analysis can continue by breaking this triad down into a dyad and the dyad into a single thing (the first Being). This process recalls the one-by-one involution of the twenty-three principles of the manifest materiality into the unmanifest original materiality at the time of reabsorption of the universe.

The polarity of contentless consciousness and materiality is characterized by the tension inherent in opposites. These two things cannot be combined. At most, they appear to interact; and in order to describe their relationship the Sākhya teachers gave figurative illustrations. For example, a lame man can be of use to the blind man, and vice versa.

At the beginning of the common era, syncretism found its way into most intellectual environments. The names Sākhya and Yoga might not refer at this time to philosophical schools. Sākhya may be a name for any set of ideas explaining metaphysics, the knowledge of which leads to liberation. Yoga may be a name for meditative and postural practices that also were employed for spiritual advancement toward liberation.

Sākhya and Yoga are often considered sibling schools, yet it is not clear whether their origins were symbiotic. Their origins are obscure. Both exhibit ideas of dissent from the Vedic sacrificial tradition which have been fully articulated in the anti-Vedic śramaic traditions, such as that of the Buddhists. In fact, Yoga was a practice of breathing, meditation, and postures used by a variety of religious traditions, yet not identified by any one in particular. Thus Yoga often existed alongside the newly formulated ideas that constituted the beginnings of the Sākhya teachings. Since both, Sākhya and Yoga, were some of the most extensively articulated teachings of the time, both found acceptance. The tendency toward interrelatedness of Sākhya and Yoga was reflected in such works as the Bhagavadgītā (most prominently in the second chapter) and the Mokadharma, both of which are parts of the great epic the Mahābhārata (compiled in the period between the last centuries bce and the first centuries ce). The adoption of Yoga in varied environments is echoed by Sākhya in that that the Sākhya doctrines became a substratum to many intellectual endeavors since the Upaniadic times for about one and half millennium. It can be said that where the Vedic tradition could not support new ideological developments, it was Sākhya which paralleled as an alternative system to provide a base to intellectual activity. This substratum is evident in the medical treatises, such as Caraka Sahitā as well as in aesthetic compendia, such as the Bhāratīya Nāyaśāstra, not to omit later the Tantra movement where Sākhya tenets provided the ontological, metaphysical, and ethical basis.

The time of syncretism was also clearly marked by theistic tendencies. References to the Sākhya school indicated two directions, one theistic, the other atheistic, despite the fact that the school of Sākhya, unlike that of Yoga, explains the creation and the existence of the universe in the absence of God. In discussions of Sākhya and Yoga, reference to "the theistic school" usually means Yoga. Historically, Sākhya and Yoga were closest to each other during the period of syncretism. It seems that from this time the two schools went their respective ways until the medieval period, when they again merged.

There is no independent work of the Sākhya school's teachings from the first centuries of the common era. In later philosophical literature, there are references to aitantra as a system of Sākhya teachings. Again, it is not clear whether aitantra was originally a name for a system of teachings or the title of a written work. When the fourteenth-century Jain scholar Guaratna mentions a revision of the aitantra, he is presumably referring to a work of the Sākhya school. Apparently, just as Sākhya and Yoga originally were names for teachings and only later became the designations of the schools, so also aitantra was likely first a name for a system of teachings and only later a title of a work.

As the name indicates, aitantra refers to "sixty topics" of a system. These topics are the ten basic topics characterizing the two entities (contentless consciousness and materiality) and the fifty categories mentioned above as intellectual creations. The date and authorship of the aitantra, either the original or the revised work, are difficult to verify. Estimated dates range between the first and fourth centuries ce. Authorship is attributed variously to Pañcaśikha or Vagaa or sometimes to the founder of the Sākhya school, Kapila.

The list of Sākhya teachers points to a rich intellectual heritage; unfortunately, none of their works has survived. One of these teachers, Vindhyavāsin, won a reputation as an ardent opponent of the Buddhists. He is also renowned for his statement that the mind is the sole instrument of the cognitive processes, as opposed to the assertion of the mainstream Sākhya school that cognitive processes result from the internal instruments of intellect, ego, and mind. Vindhyavāsin thus expressed the understanding of the Yoga school, that is, the idea of only one internal instrument, the mind. Another Sākhya teacher, Madhava, diverged from the mainstream of the Sākhya school by interpreting the three constituents in terms of atoms, quite likely under the influence of the Vaiśeika school.


The first extant independent written work of the Sākhya school is the Sākhyakārikā of Īśvaraka. This work has been variously dated but will be best placed at c. 500 ce. The Sākhyakārikā is a sort of codification of the Sākhya teachings; it deals with the various patterns of enumeration and sets forth the purpose of the teaching, that is, liberation through discrimination between contentless consciousness and materiality. This work marked the Sākhya school with a philosophical emphasis because its goal, which can be described as religious experience, is accomplished through a cognitive process employing logic and epistemology.

A number of commentaries were written about this classic work over subsequent centuries: the Suvarnasaptati (preserved in the Chinese translation of Paramartha), Sākhyavtti, Sākhyasaptativtti, Gauapādabhāya, Mā-haravtti, Jayamangalā, Yuktidīpikā, and Sākhyatat-tvakaumudī. With the exception of the Yuktidīpikā and the Sākhyatattvakaumudī, the commentaries are mostly rephrasings and glossings on the mnemonic verses of the Sākhyakārikā.

The Yuktidīpikā, which was made available in its first published edition in 1938, is the main source of information on many aspects of the Sākhya teachings that have not been accessible otherwise. The Yuktidīpikā 's date and authorship are unclear. Moreover, Albrecht Wezler has shown that it contains two types of commentaries. One commentary, the Rājavārttika, is written in concise nominal statements (vārttika ); the other is a commentary on these concise statements rather than on the Sākhyakārikā itself. Thus it will be necessary to determine the dates and authors of the Rājavārttika and the Yuktidīpikā, respectively. The Yuktidīpikā proper deals with philosophical issues of the Sākhya school in an argumentative style. The author presents a series of challenges posed by opponents (primarily Buddhist) and uses them to explain and prove the Sākhya position.

The Sākhyatattvakaumudī, a commentary written by Vācaspati Miśra I (c. eighth to ninth century ce), was the most important commentary on the Sākhyakārikā before the discovery of the Yuktidīpikā. After this, there was no significant work until the sixteenth century, when the Sākhya teacher Vijñānabhiku wrote the Sākhyapravacanabhāya and the Sākhyasāra. The Sākhyapravacanabhāya is a commentary on the Sākhyasūtra. Vijñānabhiku's interpretation of the Sākhya teachings was influenced by the Vedānta school, at that time the most widespread philosophical school. This work represents the fusion of Sākhya and Yoga.

The Sākhya teachers continued into modern times to write commentaries on earlier Sākhya works. Of the twentieth-century commentaries, the one of Bālarāma Udāsīna on the Sākhyatattvakaumudī called Vidvattoiī is considered by the traditional scholars of India to be a fresh and lucid explanation of the Sākhya teachings. The twentieth-century Sākhya ascetic and teacher Hariharānanda Āraya followed the example of the old teachers: he spent most of his life meditating in solitude, only occasionally emerging to teach or to write such works as The Sākhyasūtras of Pañcaśikha and The Sākhyatattvāloka. Finally, the late Pandit Ram Shankar Bhattacharya, a Sākhya teacher and scholar, has reedited significant old Sākhya works and contributed articles to various journals.

See Also

Indian Philosophies; Yoga.


The most comprehensive work on the Sākhya school is Sākhya: A Dualist Tradition in Indian Philosophy, edited by Gerald J. Larson and Ram Shankar Bhattacharya (Princeton and Delhi, 1987), a volume in the Encyclopedia of Indian Philosophies, edited by Karl H. Potter. It has a detailed and up-to-date introduction to the different theories of the Sākhya school; the larger part of the volume is given to the summaries of the Sākhya works from early to modern times. The volume is a result of collaboration of Indian and Western scholars. Gerald J. Larson's Classical Sākhya: An Interpretation of Its History and Meaning, 2d ed. (Santa Barbara, 1979) traces the origins of the school and also supplies the Sanskrit text of the Sākhyakārikā with an English translation. The second edition differs from the first (Delhi, 1969) by a few additions to the original body of chapters. Michael Hulin's slim volume Sākhya Literature, in A History of Indian Literature, edited by Jan Gonda, vol. 6, fasc. 3 (Wiesbaden, 1978), gives a survey of the Sākhya writings. A lucid presentation of Sākhya theory appears in Surendranath Dasgupta's A History of Indian Philosophy, vol. 1 (Cambridge, 1922), although his understanding is influenced by the medieval teacher Vijñanabhiku, whose interpretation of the Sākhya is tinged in turn by Vedānta theory. A readable and thorough history of the Sākhya school is in Erich Frauwallner's Geschichte der Indischen Philosophie, vol. 1 (Salzburg, 1953), translated by V. M. Bedekar as History of Indian Philosophy, vol. 1 (Delhi, 1973). One of the earlier works of good scholarship, but somewhat outdated, is Arthur Berriedale Keith's The Sākhya System, 2d ed. (Calcutta, 1949). On the historical origins, see E. H. Johnston's Early Sākhya: An Essay on Its Historical Development according to the Texts (1937; reprint, Delhi, 1974).

New Sources

Connolly, Peter. Vitalistic Thought in India: A Study of the Prana Concept in Vedic Literature and Its Development in the Vedanta, Samkhya and Pancaratra Traditions. Columbia, Mo., 2003.

Gopla, Lallanji. Retrieving Samkhya History: An Ascent from Dawn to Meridian. New Delhi, 2000.

Jacobsen, Knut A. Prakrti in Samkhya-Yoga: Material Principle, Religious Experience, Ethical Implications. Delhi, 2002.

Kesavan Nampoothiri. The Concept of Apovarga in Samkhya Philosophy. Delhi, 1990.

Larson, Gerald James. Classical Samkhya: An Interpretation of Its History and Meaning. Delhi, 2001.

Perrett, Roy W. "Computationality, Mind and Value: The Case of Samkhya Yoga." Asian Philosophy 11 (March 2001): 515.

Weerasinghe, S. G. M. The Samkhya Philosphy: A Critical Evaluation of Its Origins and Development. Delhi, 1993.

Edeltraud Harzer (1987 and 2005)